“Nature is the art of God,” wrote Dante, whose tomb is in Ravenna, and to enter the Basilica Sant’Apolinarre Nuovo in Ravenna, Italy, built by Theodoric (493-526) is to stand inside a garden and behold some of the world’s oldest and most beautiful mosaics. Walls wrapped with tiny stone chips create a paradise surrounding the viewer in nature’s luminous spring green. The walls lift us into a great meadow of starry skies, awe shining from vertical heights–light lifted into an infinitely rich blue. Viewing these, we can’t help but be changed, transformed by the beauty merely standing in its presence. (You learn more about the mosaics’ meaning here and can see more images of them here.)
Ceiling in Mausoleum of Galla Placidia next to the Church of Santa Croce, inspiration of Cole Porter’s “Night and Day”
Apse of Sant’Apollinare in Classe, Ravenna
Ceiling in Mausoleum of Galla Placidia
Today, far from Ravenna, I walk outside to water the garden, thinking of those walls and how nature, including images of nature in art, can lift the spirits. There is so much in this world that can weigh us down–worries about our jobs, our purpose, finances, health, our relationships or lack of them. Surrounded by these woes and worries, we long for transformation–and we can receive that when go outside and gaze into the face of nature. Dante writes, “Heaven wheels above you displaying her eternal glories, and still your eyes are on the ground.” Outside my door I see the sunflowers planted months back lifting or trying to lift their heavy heads on the long, slender stems. Things can be difficult for them, too, yet their faces gleam gold amidst the sky’s lustrous blue, and I can’t help but be grateful for their presence–the way their color, their height, the wide-eyed faces help me see the world differently.
“i thank You God for most this amazing/day:” writes E.E. Cummings, “for the leaping greenly spirits of trees/and a blue true dream of sky;and for everything/ which is natural which is infinite which is yes,” and though I feel the weight of the morning’s news weighting my head, I can see, too, that there is a larger world– the trees patiently lifting their arms to the sky, the sky swirled with cloud–the largeness of creation itself. Cummings’ poem, as it continues, also describes this sense of expansiveness.
(i who have died am alive again today,
and this is the sun’s birthday;this is the birth
day of life and of love and wings:and of the gay
great happening illimitably earth)
If it happens that you’re sometimes not sure what your purpose is or what value you might have, it’s good to have a few plants nearby that need watering because when you water plants and can know you make a difference. You see you are nurturing something, enabling it to flourish. Gradually, eventually, your plant grows and takes on new leaves. Maybe a flower blooms or the plant bares fruit. When caring for plants you understand how slowly things grow and change, and yet how given time and thoughtful attention, you can bring a little beauty into the world.
Our hearts long to be lifted in difficult times. We may not be able to visit Ravenna. We may not be able to change much in our external events, but the illimitable earth is a gift of love offered every day and it can give us wings. When we practice noticing and naming the gifts, our hearts, our worlds expand.
The body of a starving horse cannot forget the size it was born to.
A few weeks ago, I listened to the rain come down all night and thought about the grief people live with, the suffering that doesn’t go away. In our neighborhood lives a peacock that calls out through day and night. It’s mating season for peacocks, a season that goes on for four months. During this time, the peacock cries out for a mate. There is no peahen in our neighborhood, however, so the peacock’s cries echo down the valley day and night. His calls will never be answered. I hear his calls, and consider how many across the world whose needs for housing, food, clothing, clean water, clean air, or health care are never met. Suffering abounds. To live in this world is to participate in its suffering. How do we meet the suffering in the world and in our own lives? How do we cultivate the strength of spirit to be able to endure the suffering that will inevitably come to us all as we eventually approach our own deaths?
As Hirshfield’s describes in her short poem above, it feels a kind of punishment or sentence to remember what you once had or could do but are no longer able to because of physical limitations caused by accident, disease, declining health or age. But our lives don’t continue on in the same state over time. Living things change and age. We need to be able to look our own mortality in the face, yet this is very hard to do. We don’t gain inner strength to deal with these changes over night. We need to prepare for it through our lifetime.
Perhaps we have such difficulty with suffering because little in our culture prepares us to live with it, to understand or to transcend it. We don’t see suffering as as a part of life and don’t know how to learn from it. Most of us want to avoid suffering and reject pain. People prefer to be powerful and strong, not weak and suffering.
When we suffer, we tend to feel reduced and limited. The world shrinks. William Stafford’s poem, “How To Regain Your Soul,” describes a way to respond to suffering that enlarges and renews.
Come down Canyon Creek trail on a summer afternoon that one place where the valley floor opens out. You will see the white butterflies. Because of the way shadows come off those vertical rocks in the west, there are shafts of sunlight hitting the river and a deep long purple gorge straight ahead. Put down your pack.
Above, air sighs the pines. It was this way when Rome was clanging, when Troy was being built, when campfires lighted caves. The white butterflies dance by the thousands in the still sunshine. Suddenly, anything could happen to you. Your soul pulls toward the canyon and then shines back through the white wings to be you again.
One way to deal with suffering or difficulty the poem suggests, is to wander out into nature because in doing so you enable yourself to view your ills from a broader perspective. As Stafford suggests, in nature we can find a place where the world opens again, and as the poem describes, the shadows you see coming off the hard, sheer places in your life leading toward nightfall and the west are now the very thing enabling you also to see light on the river leading through the canyon walls. This is a place to observe deeply. It’s worth spending time to understand, and the stanza closes by saying, “Put down your pack.” When we suffer, it takes time to absorb the reality that your suffering could also bring you a new life source that will lead you through the rock-walled gorge of your experience. It’s worth spending time being present with this understanding–simply taking it in.
The poem’s second stanza begins with air stirring the pines. Lightness enters in. Breath. When we take time to rest in the awareness of this new state were in, we make space for something new to enter our awareness. Stafford recognizes that world we inhabit may be weighted with heavy gravity. He relates the ancient struggles of Rome and Troy, to the beginnings of human civilization living in caves. The very words Rome and Troy echo with sounds of war. We know struggle and work are part of civilizations’ foundation and history. But these descriptions of civilization’s efforts are held together in the poem’s stanza on either side by air breathing through the pines and light lifting and illuminating the wings of butterflies. Stafford reminds us this is what it is to be human. Heaviness and struggle are required for existence, yes. But present alongside the weight and effort is the magnificence of the larger world–the stunning ephemeral qualities of existence itself–the butterflies dancing in the still sun by the thousands–those resplendent moments where beauty captures and leads us into a place toward the sublime, moments where time seems to stand still, and for an instance we taste what it is to step inside eternity. Caught in an experience of what Abraham Joshua would name as “radical wonder,” the world opens. “Suddenly, anything/ could happen to you,” writes Stafford. We see now how we can inhabit our bodies as our “soul pulls toward the canyon,” the difficult and narrow places. We are are body, and we are spirit–light shining through wings.
We get used to the way things are or have been going along in our lives, and tend to think that is the way it always has been or will be. The earth and everything in it, however, is in a state of transition. At Pinnacles National Park in California, you can walk past gargantuan boulders and through caves made as a result of volcanic explosions, landslides, the slipping of tectonic plates on the San Andreas Fault, and erosion–both natural and chemical. The result today, millions of years later, is an amazing place of incredible beauty and biodiversity. We want to understand why we suffer and how to be released from suffering. When examining the earth we walk on, however, we can realize that it, too, has endured great change and many other life forms on earth have endured pain as result.
The great Jewish theologian, Abraham Joshua Heschel, said, “We may doubt anything, except that we are struck with amazement. When in doubt, we raise questions; when in wonder, we do not even know how to ask a question. Doubts may be resolved, radical amazement can never be erased. There is no answer in the world to [our] radical wonder. Under the running sea of our theories and scientific explanations lies the aboriginal abyss of radical amazement.” (Man Is Not Alone, p. 13) The result of the fissures, volcanos and erosion is, in the end, great beauty. Maybe instead of seeking an answer to our suffering we want to seek ways to stand under the light breaking through the cracks in our life’s hard and heavy rocks where we can experience wonder.
I’ve just returned from Sicily, a poor region of Italy, but a land rich in beauty–beauty enough to leave me speechless and in awe as I stepped inside Monreale’s cathedral and looked into the face of the pantocrator–Christ as the Lord of the Universe–depicted in the shining mosaics filling the central apse. The mosaic is so finely made it seems to be painted. A world heritage site, the cathedral holds the largest Byzantine mosaics outside of the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul. Mosaic art was practiced in the Byzantine empire since the fifth century (according to the Joy of Shards Site.) Thousands of skilled craftsmen had to have worked for centuries to be able to produce the level of skill to create the quality of workmanship presented in Monreale’s cathedral and cloister. (See more images here and here.) The walls depict various Biblical stories–God giving Adam the breath of life, Noah building the ark, Jesus holding out his hand to Peter who has jumped the fishing boat he was on with the other disciples in order to meet Jesus who he sees walking across the water–stories told through images of God interacting with the world and in humans’ lives.
Jungian psychologist Robert A. Johnson, in his book, Inner Work, writes of how the original meaning of fantasy comes from the Greek, phantasía, meaning “to make visible, to reveal.” Johnson explains how it’s our imagination that converts the invisible to the visible, enabling us to contemplate it. Interaction with world in the form of the arts and in writing enables us to understand spiritual truths. For the Greeks, Johnson goes on to say, phantasía was the way the divine spoke to the human mind. Until the Middle Ages, Johnson states, phantasía was thought of as the “organ that receives meanings from spiritual and aesthetic worlds and forms them into an inner image that can be held in memory and made the object of thought and reasoning” (p. 23). Phantasía was also the word Roman writers employed when wanting to “speak of the human faculty by which we express the contents of the soul by using poetic or spiritual energy.” In other words, practicing using our imagination, as artists and writers do, allows us to become conscious again of spirit. Johnson asserts also that when speaking of sensing the spirit, all ancient people understood, “Only our power to make images enables us to see it.” In fact, Johnson explains, “When we experience the images, we also directly experience the inner parts of ourselves that are clothed in the images” (p. 25). As Abigail Tucker reported in The Smithsonian’s article, “How Does the Brain Process Art?”, the brain signals the body to have physical responses to art, mirroring what is viewed.
The cathedral at Monreale, clearly demonstrates Johnson’s assertion of imagination’s power. Stepping from the everyday life of the street and entering the cathedral, I was carried out of myself into a place of wonder so astonishingly beautiful in its glowing color and intricately depicted images it could bring a person to tears—or at least it did me. A thousand years ago in Sicily, people worked the land, even as many do now—a challenging life, dependent on nature and the weather, as much of Sicily uses dry farming methods. Life could be difficult, but then there was the world inside the cathedral—a place of intense beauty, a heaven on earth, that could lift you from the mundane, and transport you into a place of wonder. In doing so, you understood your life was more than mere struggle. You were also part of a greater reality, you were also Spirit, and you participated in the life of that Spirit as revealed in the cathedral’s art.
Recognizing God speaks through nature, the Psalmist wrote, “The heavens declare the glory of God and the firmament shows his handiwork.” The Psalmist created music to express the presence of Spirit. Artist Georgia O’Keeffe painted flowers enormous on her canvases as a way to invite viewers to engage with the natural world. “Nobody sees a flower,” she wrote, “- really – it is so small it takes time – we haven’t time – and to see takes time, like to have a friend takes time.” Interacting with nature as an artist, as well as simply viewing paintings and pondering them are ways to touch Spirit. Similar to O’Keefe’s intention for viewers in the paintings she produced, though cathedrals’ construction were normally initiated by kings as expressions of their power, and often with political aims, cathedrals could also be viewed and embraced as embodiments of love—love expressed in and through the hands that made them. To produce works of such beauty, heart had to be invested, not merely the use of skill. A thousand years later, the mosaics in the Monreale’s cathedral beauty draws the world to stand before them in awe.
The Norman ruler, King William, ordered construction to begin on the Monreale’s Cathedral in 1172. The building was completed in 1176, and the mosaics by 1189. That is only 17 years for a work of monolithic and intricate beauty. I think of the difficult times we currently live in, and the tremendous effort needed to rise to the challenges–social, political, economic, and environmental–that we face, not unlike that of building a cathedral. Likely, all times could be identified as difficult depending on where you live and what you’re living through, but a particular area of current concern are the many in the world who have lost their homes. The Guardian’s December 31, 2016 article describes, “War, weather, climate change and terrorism have made millions homeless,” and then goes on to add starvation, and natural disaster to the list of causes. Sixty three million people today are fleeing disaster according to The Guardian. To address the needs of these displaced people so that their fundamental necessity for shelter is met will take the effort of millions. The forces at work to create such displacement are monumental. I’m wondering, though, how we might use our imaginations to create a cathedral of spirit amidst the poverty of our current situation in order to address the human needs of those around us.
While reading Unsettling America, An Anthology of Contemporary Multicultural Poetry, I came across Maria Mazziotti Gillan’s poem “In Memory We Are Walking,” where Gillan describes how as a child, she once went on a picnic with her Italian immigrant family. The poem allows us to go inside the experience of what displaced people likely feel coming to a new land for reasons of necessity, and working to make it home. On a rare excursion, the poem’s speaker–a young girl–and her family left Patterson, New Jersey, walking out of their mill worker’s house “built cheaply and easily,” and past “squat middle-class bungalows” that, to her, appeared to be wealthy abodes. She describes how her father, hoping for a job, walked from Patterson to Passaic, nearly a two hour’s journey, to inquire about an opening. He didn’t have the money to take the train. When he arrived, a worker told him, ‘“You stupid Dago bastard,…/ Go back where you came from./ We don’t want your kind here.” The words from this poem resonate elsewhere in the world and across time. Reading current news stories, though the faces may be different now, one can still see how attitudes prevalent at the turn of last century regarding immigrants persist.
Before leaving to travel to Sicily this past December, I visited downtown London early one evening. When I emerged from the subway tunnel, I heard a loud voice calling out, “Help me. Somebody save me!” A man sat on the street outside the subway exit shouted to those walking by. I didn’t know what kind of help the man needed, or if he possibly might not be in his right mind. Like others, though, I crossed the street to wait for the bus—on my way to elsewhere. Ten minutes later, the man’s desperate voice could be heard shouting, his words echoing across the street. On and on he called, his plea reaching into my thoughts—fixing itself there, and becoming, somehow, the needy voice of us all.
Further up the street, suspended in flight, angels hovered above the roadway in the form of electric lights. Christmas shoppers emerged from the brilliantly lit multilevel department storefronts, windows packed with a plethora of products–leather purses and shoes, sequined dresses, sportswear and down jackets, wool hats and scarves, specialty chocolates and teas. Streets drenched in abundance while at the same time, not far away, a man calls out for help, and none respond. Further down the street, I walked by a man in a grim looking Santa costume. He leaned against a wall above the sleeping bag where he slept, a cup held out for money. Entering another subway station, a second Santa stood by the escalators holding a cup for offerings, a thin woman with a drooping Santa hat, and wearing grubby Santa coat and a plaid skirt. Homeless Santas, and a man pleading to be saved–if not physical poverty, we live amidst a poverty of spirit. Those on the street have the humility to admit their need. The man on the street shouted out the words that we in our social silence, pride, and neglect fail to speak: that in many ways in the places we live, if not our lives and way of living, then in our hearts–connection to each other, is broken. If so many around us live in dire need while others of us live in physical abundance, then somebody help us.
From the crowded streets of our lives, the homeless part of ourselves calls out in our poverty. The somebody that must help us needs to arise from within. What kind of world do we want to live in? What does a beautiful world look like? How would people interact in order to create a world where we could live without fear, where all people’s needs are met? Just like those who built the cathedrals of Sicily, we each have skills we have built up over time. Humbly, and together, we can use these abilities to create the world we want to live in. We can do our art and look for ways to create neighborly acts of kindness and generosity wherever we are. Whatever the work we look for or do, we can make of our work a spiritual effort, a prayer. With our hands and mind, we can create sanctuaries of the spirit, cathedrals of the heart that transform ourselves and those around us. As poet Nancy Wood writes, “Patterns persist,/life goes on, whatever rises will converge./ Do what you will, but strengthen the things that remain.” We can use our imagination to discover ways to transform despair, and to practice the skills that will make a world where, like the cathedral of Monreale, a refuge of beauty and place of peace people a thousand years from now can inherit and inhabit.
Like the work to create the cathedral, creating such a world takes devotion, love, and hard work. Labor doesn’t have to be merely work, as it often becomes when the goal is merely for self interest and personal gain. Just as beauty can open our hearts, labor can also enlarge us as we work together. The two aren’t inseparable when we work with the intention that the labor we do is a way to give something needed for the betterment of the community–for the beauty of the earth and humanity.
We can plan many things, carefully drawing designs, listing steps, following through with what inspires or seems important in order to move us in a direction we want to go. Sometimes, however, a great wave rises up in our world, and we are caught in a current of events that sweeps away all, or nearly all. You have little choice but to let go into the current. During this time, it’s all you can do to focus on the necessities at hand, swimming along in the current stroke by stroke, aiming toward home. Though we may have experienced an undertow earlier, or previously been nearly carried away by a powerful wave, it doesn’t make it easier when the tsunami rolls in and we’re caught in its path. Making it through to the other side is more than a struggle, it’s a miracle of perseverance.
In Yehuda Amichai’s poem, “The Amen Stone,” Amichai describes a destroyed Jewish graveyard, and the painstaking effort of a man whose yearning for wholeness has made it his work to restore a fragmented and broken past. Though the tsunami of events that destroyed the graveyard happened ages ago, the effects of the fragmentation are still felt generations later. The broken stones with their names and dates are scattered “helter-skelter” over the earth. No act of God created this landscape. A tsunami of human choices made the situation, and we don’t have to know the specific event to understand that it’s more than just stones in the poem that are broken. Families have been split, histories scattered. Effort has been made to wipe from memory the story of the lives on the stone fragments. Longing speaks from the scattered stones to the man in the poem whose heart sees in the stone fragments a story yearning to be told.
What is possible to know from the story of broken gravestones? When we walk past names on stones in ancient graveyards, do we know much of anything regarding the tales they tell? I think of Pip, in the opening scenes of Dicken’s Great Expectations, standing at his parents’ gravestones, trying to discern the quality of his parents’ character by the script style imprinted in the stones. We might not be able to tell much about the lives, but the gravestones’ existence speaks of those who lived and shaped their world, making together what has come to us through time. In a world of brokenness where people separate into camps of perceived right and wrong, left and right, allowing for no in between, brokenness prevails. Amichai’s poem begins with the word “Amen” in the first line, a word meaning “so be it,” a word often said at the end of a prayer. The world is broken, there it is. So be it. Look at it. See the world’s state for what it is. We are a scattered people, and not just those in this graveyard—economics, race, religion, politics, age, gender—there is so much we have let divide us from the common ground we could rest together in, and as Amichai states, “until they have found one another, they will not find a perfect rest.”
How do we live after a tsunami, real or political, has destroyed our land, our people, our hearts? Is it possible to become whole again? Can we heal the past? The root of the word religion is to rebind. Religions across the world hold as their foundations an understanding that humans are fragmented beings. Even if we can’t or don’t say it directly in words, when we acknowledge our brokenness, when we search for and tenderly lift the fragments of our world with the intention to restore, as did the “sad, good man” in the poem in his act of cleansing the gravestone shards, we enter into a sacred, and one might even say, religious act. Through the man’s creative effort of documenting what once was once whole, he unifies again what had been broken for generations. Healing begins.
Interestingly, Amichai at the poem’s end uses the word child’s play to describe the man’s act. Some, perhaps, would consider the man’s effort a ridiculous waste of energy and time. His is an intuitive act of heart, rather than of logic. Children are the natural advocates for the value of play, and putting together the puzzle of broken stones must in the end be play because it is play that renews, and remakes us. Re-creation is what the man’s perseverant play has accomplished. By the poem’s end, we realize we are witnessing a paradox, a world that is broken and whole at the same time, as a mosaic is both broken and whole.
Does the man’s effort to restore the gravestones make a difference to those whose lives were blasted apart? If we understand our lives are connected into a webbed circle of being, as science leads us to understand, then what we do in one place and time affects the life of the whole. One act of kindness and healing changes the quality of all. The stone fragment the speaker in the poem saves is triangular, like the shape of the A in the word “Amen.” The poem relates a triad of actors, the destroyers who turned the gravestones to fragments, the man who “resurrects” the lives of the dead by reunifying the gravestones, and the preserver—the man who saves the stone with “Amen” written on it, putting to rest the prayer inside the stones’ longing: the story of the lives they stand for given back their substance. In the gravestones’ reconstructed puzzle and re-unified presence, the dead are re-given life. They are released—let go at last into a place of peace.
A few months ago, I remember standing in a crowded New Delhi subway car at rush hour as the train door opened and passengers crammed and shoved their way through the door, hoping not to have to wait for the next car’s arrival. Pushed into the car’s back wall and pressed into a corner against the opposite wall, I watched as a woman hefted her large bag through the open door and pushed it across the floor between a profusion of bodies, then held on to the vertical steel bar in the middle of the floor, hoping to get her balance before the train took off. Behind her, though, passengers continued to shove themselves through the subway car’s open door—bodies piling into each other in a crush of sweating humanity. Hand still wrapped around her bag’s plastic rope handle, the woman attempted to stand. The bodies flooding through the doorway drove her toward the floor, however, catching her hand between the rope and the handrail. The woman cried out, straining to remove her strangled fingers from passengers’ weight pressing against her. She plead for people to stop. Deaf to her protests the deluge of bodies at the door, driven only by thought of getting on the train, continued to push forward.
Stunned, I watched in silence, as the tsunami of bodies rammed through the door. I expected people to calm down, notice what they were doing, that the woman would be okay, but the situation continued. My husband, standing closer to the scene, pushed the men away from the woman, and joining her in protest, called out “Stop!” Finally, the subway doors closed, the flood resided, people found space to put their feet, and the woman could release her hand from the plastic rope handle’s stranglehold on her. She stood up. She was a short woman, I noticed, ruffled, but still in possession of herself.
Why didn’t I act, I later wondered. What was it that made me simply stand there, saying nothing? As an outsider living in a foreign country, it’s not always clear when it’s okay to enter in to a scene, and when it’s not a good decision. Nevertheless, this woman was in need and yet I did nothing. Plenty enough times in my adult life I have felt powerless in situations, caught, and unable to discern the best course of action. These are fragmented parts of myself, and they don’t bring rest. If these moments were concrete objects, they could be dated and scattered about in the graveyard of past mistakes. What, though, if I took the journey of the man in Amichai’s poem? What if I bit by bit gathered the broken pieces, scrubbed them so I could name them clearly, and as if creating a work of art, gently set them together to let them tell their story and be released to a place of rest? Then, perhaps, I could live into a new story.
The Japanese have a practice called wabi sabi—of filling cracked pottery pieces with gold. The cracks aren’t removed, but when the pot is repaired, it is even more beautiful than before. Brokenness creates space for acts of compassion and gentleness. This is how we make beauty from brokenness.
At seventy-three years old, Aretha Franklin sings Carole King’s song, “Natural Woman” at Lincoln Center with perfect timing, range of voice, power and outright presence. If you ever wondered what you might have to offer the world in your aging years, listen to her sing, and you will know what is possible—a person who knows who she is, who is in full possession of herself, and who gives her gifts—her talents and skill to the world as a blessing. This is beauty.
Daniel O’ Leary, a priest in Leeds and former teacher at St. Mary’s University College in London writes, “I like to think that each one of us, when we act out of our true essence rather than out of our false ego, when we refuse to betray our authentic self, when we are in close touch with our own sacred centre, in spite of persistent temptation, persuasion and compulsion to conform and to compromise – that when we act in this way we transform every room we enter, every conversation in which we take part, every relationship we engage in and every project we initiate or join.” Aretha Franklin was most certainly singing from with in the center of her true essence when performing at Lincoln Center, her presence transforming not only those in the room, as evidenced by Carole King’s overwhelmed and enthusiastic reaction to the performance, and by Obama who wiped tears from his eyes, but transforming also those who watch Aretha via the Internet. How do we live like that–from the center of ourselves, moving beyond the desire to demonstrate our skill, ability, talent, or worth—beyond the need to compete and claim a space, beyond nervousness and fear about perceived success—and instead, move into the depths of our own selves, to rest in the acceptance of who we are, including our imperfections and incompleteness? How do we live with open arms, surrendering into life in order to walk into a larger world, so we can let go into our own transformation?
Recently, while traveling through Morocco’s enormous outback of the Atlas Mountains, I noticed how in the desert, the earth lays itself open for all to see. Nothing is hidden, the layers, folds, slumps, the red years of surface soil eroding away to the green rock beneath, solidity slowly wasting away–all is revealed. The Atlas Mountains, opens its chest to Allah, lays bare its red heart. Each ripple and rock stripe, distinctly visible and known. How vulnerable the earth is, face open to sun and wind. The sky kisses the earth. Goats, their shadows following them like dark drifting clouds, amble slowly across the red soil, grazing. Earth’s muscles loses hold. Rocks walls crumble—bones turning into gravel. Mountains slide into valleys in slow, smooth heaps. Complete with folds and flares, in her old age, the earth wears her skirt of splayed sand and rock, swirled out as in slow, ponderous steps–an ancient dance still in play. Continuously, the earth’s age reveals her beauty.
Erosion reveals the layers of earth’s substrata. As in our own lives, the surface wears away as time continues, revealing the bedrock of who we are, what we are built on—what our foundation consists of. When standing in Morocco’s 10 meters (thirty three foot) wide Todra Gorge, the color and stone rise 600 metres (1,969 ft) above in gold-red walls, surround you with their millennia of patiently layered rock, cut through by the Todgha River. The slow turning folds and twists that made the canyon’s strength, humble you, leave you without words. We take the wadi and the world in at a glance—the entire landscape gifted to us, a grace delivered as simply as the sky kissing the earth–a beauty, that like an abstract painting, strips away all to its bare forms and essence–joining us to the oneness lying beneath. To stand in the Todra Gorge is to connect to your foundation, to stand inside it. Experience it.
Todra Gorge cliff and sky
Later, a bit further down the road in the Dades Gorge, I woke the next morning to the view outside my window: the leaves of a tree trembling in the gold, early light of morning’s breeze. Everything around the trees delicate leaves was rock. Solid and still. The sun rose, turning the gorge’s walls to rust. Then, the tree, too, stood still as the stone surrounding it.
The next day, after traveling on to Ait Bin Haddou, I climbed the hill that overlooks the mud walled city. Walking along, Here you can find calcite formations strewn across the earth in palm-sized slabs, and can see the bubbling up in pillow-like form from beneath the soil’s shallow cover. The earth wears stripes here and spots of purple. Wind rushes across the earth, kicks up dust, and streaks the sky with long cloud flares. The sky is the very definition of blue—long vowels of ooooohhhh, moving with the wind’s rough breath, the scattered stones the earth’s consonants. The earth speaks.
Dust in the wind over river bed
Ait Bin Haddou sky
Calcite formations at Ait Bin Haddou
Red and purple earth
In mountains, in sky, in her erosion and old age the earth speaks. She has no pretensions. In full possession of herself, she gives her gifts to the world as blessing. She’s the natural woman. She knows who she is, and she is singing.
Looking out on the morning rain
I used to feel so uninspired
And when I knew I had to face another day
Lord it made me feel so tired
Before the day I met you, life was so unkind
But you’re the key to my peace of mind
‘Cause you make me feel
you make me feel
You make me feel like a natural woman.
It’s a blue world in Chefchaouen, the small city of narrow, winding streets in the Riff mountains of northern Morocco. The blues here tell the story of the Jews who left Spain when in 1492 the monarchs, Isabel and Ferdinand, throwing off five hundred years of Muslim control, required Jews to leave or to convert to Christianity. Many Jews left behind their property at that time and migrated to Morocco, with many settling in Chefchaouen.
Though most of the Jews have left Chefchaouen now, immigrating to Israel and elsewhere after Morocco attained independence in 1956, the city is still blue. This is because the citizens have painted the walls various blue shades. Morocco can get very hot in the summer with temperatures reaching 40 degrees Celsius. The cool colors make the temperature feel cooler, and the blue color is thought by some to help keep mosquitos away. In Andalusia, in southern Spain, people painted their city walls, and the tradition was carried on when the Jews arrived in Morocco. Today, people come to visit Chefchaouen because its walls sing the blues in myriad tones. People come because Chefchaouen is beautiful.
What you want to do in Chefchaoen is wander the streets and discover its nooks where a fountain may flow out from a royal blue wall, or stand inside the blues that reflect off each other in narrow alleys, shining out from a street painted with moons and stars, blues that curl into quiet corners. The blues of Chefchaoen create a peaceful state. “Where are you from?” asks a man standing in the door where the community oven is located. We tell him, and he says, “Welcome to my country.” All over Morocco I’ve been asked this question, and always the reply is “Welcome to my country.”
It’s not just a saying. Morocco is a welcoming country. Just recently, Jews of New York City acknowledged Morocco’s extension of welcome and refuge to Jews during World War Two. Moroccan culture, like cultures in other Muslim countries I have visited, is generous spirited and open hearted. Always when visiting, and often when doing business, people offer you tea. I was taking a photo of my husband in a small street in Chefchaouen, and didn’t see a woman walking there, who stopped and waited while I took the photo. I was filled with delight at the beauty of the place. When I lifted my eye from the camera lens, I saw the woman and apologized. Her response was to smile. She reached out her hand, placed it on my heart, still smiling, and said a few words as she walked on, brushing gently by in her cream colored robe as she continued down the street. Though I hadn’t understood her words, I understood her intent, and felt I had been blessed.
Walking through the central plaza, I see a mother holding her baby close in her arms. Bent tenderly toward the child, over and over she speaks . An hour later, I stroll back through the same area, and she is still there, still cradling her small child in her arms. Wrapped snug in warm blankets and crooned to, this child is dearly loved, at peace. Islam means submission to God. The root of the word is the same as is used in the Arabic greeting, “Assalamualaikum,” meaning “Peace be with you.” Implied, is the idea that to submit to God is to submit to peace. There is lots of business in Chefchaouen, people selling their wares, vegetable markets, people hanging out their laundry. Old men in jellabiyas tap along the stony pavement with their canes, women hang out the laundry atop the roofs. Amidst the activity of daily life, prayer call drifts across the streets. The people of Chefchaoen, continue on in their beautiful town, practicing a way of peace.
A plain dotted with trees and scattered with boulders, Hampi in the Indian state, Karnataka, is a beautiful landscape. My recent visit there during the Diwali holiday allowed me to wander into India’s rural outback, and to laze against sun heated granite by the Tungabhadra River. During the 1500s, the Vijayanagar had a population of 500,000. The empire covered the entire southern portion of India, but Deccan Plateau sultans joined together and defeated the Vijayanagar army. The temples’ treasures were carried off as loot, much of the population was killed, and of those who weren’t killed, many fled. One of the world’s mightiest kingdoms fell to ruin, and gradually into obscurity.
Four hundred years later, Robert Sewell, a British civil servant stationed in India, wrote about the empire in his book, A Forgotten Empire Vijayanagar: A Contribution to the History of India. Much later, in 1986, Hampi became a UNESCO World Heritage site.
In addition to being a World Heritage site, Hampi is also a place of important religious significance for Hindus. As the stories describe, Hampi is the hill where Shiva, the god of destruction, did penance before marrying Pampa. After Shiva married, the gods poured gold onto the Heamakuta hill. According to the Hampi India website, Heamakuta, means heap of gold.
Hampi’s temples and ruins are spread over more than 10 square miles, or 25 square kilometers. There is much to see, and the carvings are fantastic. Though a place of enormous significance for many people on the subcontinent in the 1400 and 1500s, Hampi and the Vijayanagar empire are mostly unknown to people outside of India. As I walked along near the queen’s palace, I ran my hand along one of the carved walls. “My hands are touching history,” I thought to myself. “My hands touch what the ancients have touched, yet I understand so little.” Whether at a ruins of an ancient empire, or walking down the street of our hometown, our lives are enveloped in mysteries. We just don’t often recognize it.
After our day of exploration at the ruins, we went on a walk on the grounds near our hotel. We stepped across bamboo bridges stretching over the river, looped up across massive granite faces. Turning a corner, we tucked ourselves through a wooden door between leaning rock slabs. As we stepped inside, it seemed we had entered into a rock cathedral with windows of sky beaming through the stacked boulders. We continued climbing a short distance to an opening where we stood, at last, to view the valley spread before us in a 360 degree view. It was as if we had entered a secret door that enabled us to see the whole world. What a wonder it was, too–a plain filled with trees, and a river meandering through it with granite boulders balancing in precarious positions and leaning agains each other in dramatic angles. Nature like this is not a site often seen when living in one of the world’s mega cites like Delhi. We scanned our eyes across the landscape, fishing for greenery, for sky, for what we didn’t even know how to name. Our hearts simply opened to the world, and when we left the hilltop, we knew something inside us had shifted. We were lighter, and ,paradoxically, somehow more solid. Nature writer Barry Lopez says, “real beauty is so deep you have to move into darkness to understand it.” This is because when beauty touches you, you slip into a place that is beyond rational thought and abstraction. The divisions between the physical and spiritual worlds collapse into one unified presence. That presence is far bigger than the mind can hold. You are humbled and made whole again.
The beauty of Hampi’s temples is definitely worth traveling a long distance to see. The setting of the ruins themselves, though, is what sets Hampi apart from other locations. In this landscape, you can learn that everywhere is a temple if we have eyes to see it. To be there is to walk around in a colossal expanse of found sculpture, an installation art piece of gargantuan proportions, the origins prehistorical. Everywhere I looked, I saw art emerging from the earth.
Hampi granite sheathes
Rice field, Hampi
Granite sheathe 2
Granite sheathe 3
Rice field, Hampi
The earth is in an ongoing creative act. If you listen, you can hear it speak through its myriad forms. The wind in palm trees chatters with stiff, clattering branches. Wind through bamboo scratches and cracks like arthritic bones. Wind through neem trees speaks with a restless, dry and fragile sound like crinkled onion skins. The earth tells its stories.
In my continuing desire to learn Spanish, I’m reading Mary Pope Osborne’s Magic Treehouse book series in Spanish. Currently, I’m reading Una momia al amanecer, or in English, A Mummy at Daybreak. The children in the novel, Annie and Jack, learn how the Egyptians “tried to protect the body against death by preserving it for eternity.” (p. 45) Travel to the Vijayanagar empire’s ruins, however, assures the visitor that empires are temporary. All we have can be lost in a moment. Even stone wears away and topples. In Hindi, Vijay means victory. Victory, if found, is elsewhere, not in empires.
The final stanza of Louise Gluck’s poem “Summer Nights” reads,
Balm of summer night, balm of the ordinary,
imperial joy and sorrow of human existence,
the dreamed as well as the lived–
what could be dearer than this, given the closeness of death?
Life is so dear, and life is full of both imperial joy as well as sorrow. You don’t seem to get one without getting the other too, at least that is what I’ve observed from living in India. Everything is being destroyed and made at the same time. Maybe that is, in part, why art is necessary. It reminds us that we participate in the creative act of life. Perhaps this is why temples have so much art. Religion means to rebind, and the creative act helps us to re-member–to put our selves together again.
“Man is hungry for beauty. There is a void.”—Oscar Wilde
In the streets of my Delhi neighborhood, workers are building new apartments. Women carry sand on their heads. Bricks are stacked on the walkway. Yesterday the populous celebrated Republic Day, and I was reading Pamela Timms’ book, Korma Kheer & Kismet, the chapter titled “Independence Day in Sadar Bazar” where she describes the civic protests of 2011 where social activist, Kisan Baburao “Anna” Hazare, began a hunger strike in protest of government corruption. Concerned with the amount of interest Hazare stirred up in the populace, prime minister of the time, Manmohan Singh responded, ‘”Corruption manifests itself in many forms. Funds meant for schemes for the welfare of the common man end up in the pocket of government officials. In some other instances, government discretion is used to favor a selected few. There are also cases where government contracts are wrongfully awarded to the wrong people. We cannot let such activities continue unchecked.”’ Hazare’s hunger strike began the day after the prime minister made the statement, reports Timms, and goes on to describe some of the corruptions in the system—food vendors paying as much as a quarter of their salaries to the police to be able to stay open, and rickshaw drivers paying as much as 20% of their salaries to police to prevent their tires from being slashed, families having to pay bribe money to secure a place for their child at school. (p. 55) (You can read an overview of large-scale corruption in India here if you wish.)
It’s no surprise that corruption is present not only in India. It is a worldwide problem in both businesses, see a list here of top business corruption cases, and governments. Take a look at the thematic map from Transparency International here, to see a visual representation of corruption levels in countries across the world. Justice doesn’t prevail. In many cases, it’s simply the way the world functions where people live, and the everyday person, if he or she wants to function in society, doesn’t have a lot of choice about it.
With corruption and misuse of power so widespread, an enormous percentage of people in the world are pawns to those who hold the power. How do people manage? How do people—any of us and all of us—caught in such systems go on living with good conscience? I remember listening to Garth Lenz describing on his TED Talk about the effects of mining for oil in Canada’s tar sands had on the native people of the area. Parents in that area are caught in the dilemma of needing to feed their children, yet the toxins in the river are causing cancers at the rate of 10 times what it is in other parts of Canada. Because it’s very costly to fly in all the food a person needs in order eat, the aboriginal people are forced to eat the food “..as a parent, I just can’t imagine what that does to your soul. And that’s what we’re doing,” says Lenz. (transcript available here.) Certainly there were people during the time of Spain’s inquisition, in Nazi Germany and in Pol Pot’s Cambodia who didn’t agree with the government’s position but felt compelled to go along with the crowd mentality for fear of their own lives and those of their children’s. Certainly, there are people today in our own institutions who disagree with the use of power and yet are afraid of speaking out for fear of losing their jobs and the livelihood for their families. Not everyone can just move on or move out to a new situation, new job, new country, new life, and even if that were possible, where might one live or work where corruption was not part of the way of life? We have to learn to live in a fallen world.
I’m reminded of Maria Mazziotti Gillan’s poem, “I Open a Box,” in her book, Ancestor’s Song, where she describes her Italian immigrant mother’s doctor coming to her New Jersey tenement to assist her in the delivery of her baby. He arrives late, and Gillan’s mother has already given birth, cut the umbilical cord, and washed her child. When the doctor finally arrives, he doesn’t even enter the room. Instead, he distances himself from the situation.
“He washed his hands, wiped
them on one of the rough linen towels
I brought from Italy, stood in the doorway.
“You’ll be okay,” he said, and left.
“Oh, well,” my mother said, “I think
he was afraid of catching it.”
“Catching what?” I asked.
“Poverty,” she said.
Poverty is often perceived by wealthier countries as something out there over there, not mine not related to one’s own life. Like the doctor at the door, people want to distance themselves from the poor, not realizing their lives are connected. We may want to stand at the door like the doctor of this poem observing a world we don’t want to be a part of. We may think we can wash our hands, bid others well and walk away, and disconnect ourselves from what we don’t want and live in a different neighborhood. But our lives are intertwined. One example: A few years back, students in my speech class debated whether the lithium beneath Bolivia’s salt flats should be mined. The area is of tremendous beauty yet the area holds more than half the world’s lithium. Lithium is a lightweight metal used in powering our high tech products—iPhones, iPods, and other handheld devices. Now, as the world searches for alternative energy and looks towards ways to store electricity in batteries in order to meet more of our needs, including the use of batteries for electric vehicles, the need for lithium grows in greater and greater demand.
Dan McDougal, in his article on Mail Online “In search of Lithium: The battle for the third element” quotes a lithium-ion battery producer, Mary Ann Wright of Johnson Controls-Saft, ‘Since a vehicle battery requires 100 times as much lithium carbonate as its laptop equivalent, the green-car revolution could make lithium one of the planet’s most strategic commodities.’“ There’s not enough lithium to power the world’s 900 million vehicles, however, McDougal observes. Bolivia has significantly large amounts of the needed lithium to produce the batteries for the growing electric car industry, an industry that most people perceive as a green technology. Mc Dougal reports that according to “William Tahil, research director with technology consultancy Meridian International Research, ‘to make just 60 million plug-in hybrid vehicles a year containing a small lithium-ion battery would require 420,000 tons of lithium carbonate – or six times the current global production annually.” To continue, McDougal goes on to report that “The US Geological Survey claims at least 5.4 million tons of lithium could be extracted in Salar De Uyuni, while another report puts it as high as nine million tons.”’ Bolivia is a very poor country. Child workers are exploited, but children work to help their families. While mining the mineral would bring needed jobs and money into the country, a problem is that mining the mineral requires an abundance of water, and water is a rare commodity in Bolivia’s high desert. Bolivia has experienced exploitation by outsiders before in the tin and silver mining industries. An overuse of water could significantly affect the country and its people in numerous ways—making it difficult to have enough water for daily use, as well as for farming. Additionally, mining pollutes water with toxins as well. McDougal asks his readers “Is the world’s need for a green solution to transport worth the destruction of this unique environment and way of life that it lives on?”
Transportation is necessary. Our society is structured in such a way that few of us can walk to work. We need some way of getting to work. We want to do that in the least harmful way to the environment and others. As a result, in the desire to move away from our dependence on oil, many people are looking toward buying an electric car. These same people may be unaware that in doing so they are connected to moral dilemmas of another sort. We are all part of the greater web of being.
Parker Palmer, in his book, The Courage to Teach, which I’m currently reading, talks about the biologist Barbara McClintock, who was given the Nobel Prize in 1983 for her work that changed our understanding of genetics. Prior to her work, people thought of genes as separate things, not in connection to the environment they were a part of. Palmer explains that McClintock’s interviewer who wrote her biography, Fox Keller, “wanted to know, ‘What enabled McClintock to see further and deeper into the mysteries of genetics than her colleagues?’ McClintock’s answer, Keller tells us, is simple: “Over and over again she tells us one must have the time to look, the patience to ‘hear what the material has to say to you,’ the openness to ‘let it come to you.’ Above all, one must have ‘a feeling for the organism.’” We co-create our world. We can’t stand at the door. The burden of the cost of anything is born by all eventually. As Palmer goes on to say, “Modern knowledge has allowed us to manipulate the world but not to control its fate (to say nothing of our own), a fact that becomes more clear each day as the ecosystem dies and our human systems fail.” (p. 57) Perhaps, then one important way of living inside of corrupt systems and move ourselves and society toward greater wholeness is to do what we can with those around us to build and restore relationships constructively. Some things or many things may not be in our power. But some things will. We can learn to listen closely to the interrelationships of people and things so we gain a greater connection to life. With this understanding, we can better comprehend what actions will create harmony both with others and with nature.
Dostoyevsky said, “Beauty can save the world.” While it may not appear to be a solution to growing environmental and social concerns, the idea deserves a closer look. What connection does beauty have in showing us a way through our dilemmas of how to live in unjust social systems? The New York Times “Books” section, published in 1987 includes an excerpt from Richard Ellman’s essay “Oscar Wilde.” Ellman relates the story of Oscar Wilde coming to New York City in 1882. “Beauty is nearer to most of us than we are aware,” Wilde explained talking to reporters. One of the reporters wanted to know if a nearby grain elevator was beautiful. Earlier in the conversation, Wilde had said, ‘I am here to diffuse beauty, and I have no objection to saying that.” As reporters continued probing, Wilde explained further his ideas about beauty. ”’It’s a wide field which has no limit, and all definitions are unsatisfactory. Some people might search and not find anything. But the search, if carried on according to right laws, would constitute estheticism. They would find happiness in striving, even in despair of ever finding what they sought. The renaissance of beauty is not to be hoped for without strife internal and external.” ”Where then is this movement to end?” ”There is no end to it; it will go on forever, just as it had no beginning. I have used the word renaissance to show that it is no new thing with me. It has always existed. As time goes on the men and the forms of expression may change, but the principle will remain. Man is hungry for beauty. . . . There is a void; nature will fill it. The ridicule which esthetes have been subjected to is the only way of blind unhappy souls who cannot find the way to beauty.”’ Creating a world of beauty is creating the ideal world. Creating a heaven, so to speak. To do so will take great effort. But people are hungry for it, as Wilde says. We are hungry for beauty, and that hunger connects to the desire for a world without corruption. Without corruption, beauty has a better chance of thriving.
Elaine Scarry, author of On Beauty and Being Just, speaks on her Harvard Thinks Big, “Beauty as a Call to Justice” about how experiences of beauty help to move humans toward justice. When we experience the beautiful, we are pulled out of our everyday way of interacting with our surroundings. We stand still. We are transfixed, she explains. In those moments, beauty pours into us an awareness of the “surfeit of aliveness.” It takes us out of ourselves, and connects us with a larger reality. Scarry makes the case that this experience of beauty helps lead us to love what we see and to want to care for it and have a relationship with it.
I don’t know if its true as Keats said in his “Ode to a Grecian Urn” that “Beauty is truth, truth beauty,–that is all/Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know,” but I do believe we need to have a much deeper knowing of beauty than we currently hold. There is a relationship between our loss of beauty in many of our urban environments, a loss resulting from our pragmatic values that relegates beauty to the bottom realms, and efficiency to the higher realms of priority. When I speak of beauty, I’m not talking about beauty in the decorative or commercial sense. I’m speaking of the beauty such as nature gives us in a star strewn sky or a valley sweeping down in green fields from stoney mountain peaks. I’m speaking of the beauty Scarry described above—that stops us short, that overwhelms, and then lifts us out of ourselves. Is our culture’s pragmatic love of efficiency causing us to structure society in such a way that it’s actually challenging to make deep connections with others? We have connection to people on Facebook, but does the minimalistic communication that exists there nurture deep conversation and relationship? I doubt it. Could it also be true that our lack of seeing ourselves as connected to the beauty of the Bolivian salt flats and the lives of Bolivian miners as we pursue our technological development (and other similar realities) is part of the reason corruption continues to thrive? Do people act in ugly ways because they live in a world where connection to the natural world is broken? In glimpses of beauty, we can see the world we want to belong to, a world of balance and wholeness, and are drawn to it. If we gave beauty a place of respect and honor in our cultures, possibly we would treat the world with more respect. If we developed more of a relationship with those around us and with the natural world, wouldn’t we understand our connection to the world and realize more fully the effects of our choices? Is our collective loss of beauty causing us to lose our souls?
I never used to understand the Jesus prayer—the ancient prayer that says, “Have mercy on me.” I felt it seemed too focused on the negative and I already struggle to move beyond my failures. But as I see myself more and more intertwined with the existence of all that is, I see the value of this prayer. What the world is or isn’t, isn’t all up to me, but I’m also a part of all that is. How do we live in a corrupt world and yet continue to grow toward wholeness? The problems are all much bigger than me but mercy is extended. “For the Beauty of the Earth” is an old song that carries with it the idea of giving praise for the world around us and to the skies. Perhaps the ongoing practice of noticing and valuing beauty in the world, as the words of this song illustrate, acts to create a greater awareness of our interconnectivity. It’s worth trying.
One of the especially valuable aspects of creative work—of art and literature, of writing—is the way it nurtures the inner life. The artist must look very carefully at whatever she or he is drawing in order to see it and how it functions in relationship to itself and to the world it inhabits. In writing, an author must delve inside the subject with imagination in order to understand the subject and the interrelationship of the subject to oneself and the world. To write or to do art is to cultivate beauty. It is a way to reconnect to the world, is a way of making whole again as telling our story is a way of making us whole again. The flourishing of this kind of empathetic understanding that comes through our interaction with literature and the arts is important to not only the continuance of the world, but the continuance of a world that is good to live in.
Wherever we are, we can work with others to create greater wholeness. If we are going to change at all, it will be a step-by-step movement toward wholeness. In the mean time, we can pray as we walk, “have mercy,” and, by grace, we will continue on.
“Prayer begins at the edge of emptiness.”–Abraham Joshua Heschel
Heschel’s words strike me because there are a lot of things I don’t have answers for. Aware of my smallness in face of the suffering around me every day, I stand at the edge of emptiness and cry out.
When riding out into traffic, I’ve started a practice of looking into beggars’ faces who come to my window, or when someone speaks to me in the market asking for money, or when I see who is suffering, a family living on the street, for example, also animals who suffer, and in my mind I say, “I wish you well.” It’s a kind of prayer, and though it’s not directly answering the needs they have, it’s a way to keep my heart open–to keep noticing even though I might not be able to help the person in the way they ask of me. I want to see their humanness, and to be reminded of my own weakness and vulnerability.
Certainly, even in the lives of the desperately poor, there also must be times of joy. Even so, the human need in Delhi, is great. All the arms reaching out, the eyes–the world’s needs are immense. This week Nepal has its worst earthquake since 1934. The suffering is enormous. It will take decades, to recover, life times to become new, and we feel the grief hanging in the air as we go about our day.
The poverty in this world is not made up of physical poverty only, however. There is poverty of spirit, poverty of heart, and this is where I think that those of us in the developed world have a great lack. Everywhere around us today, from psychologists like Martin Seligman and his ideas about flourishing, to religious leaders like Matthieu Ricard, people are talking about how to be happy. Even Pope Francis has come up with his list of 10 tips for a happier life such as taking time off to be with your family, and spending time in nature. People who study what makes us happy tell us that focusing on what brings us a sense of well being actually helps us to become happier, and of course that is a good thing. But sadness and melancholy are also a part of life, and experiencing sadness and melancholy can help us become more compassionate, as Courtney Stephens explains on this animated TED Ed lesson. We learn from our sadness how to be more human.
I don’t know how best to respond to the sadness in the world, the grief so many feel, but want to give something of myself to meet that need. One must start somewhere, however small. It’s the start that counts. It makes room for greater opening, and I know I need to open.
For months now I have been working on poems on the subject of food. It has taken some time, longer than I expected because new ideas for poems keep surfacing. I am now nearing the end of the poems I want to write for this series. I hope I’ve written well enough that after putting the poems into a manuscript I’ll find a publisher so I can use the proceeds from its sale to give to an organization that helps prevent hunger here in India. I hope it will be of some good. In the process of writing these poems, I’ve also been rereading about creativity, and returned today to Rilke’s Letters To a Young Poet where I read,
“…Everything is gestation and then birthing. To let each impression and each embryo of a feeling come to completion, entirely in itself, in the dark, in the unsayable, the unconscious, beyond the reach of one’s own understanding, and with deep humility and patience to wait for the hour when a new clarity is born: this alone is what it means to live as an artist: in understanding as in creating.
In this there is no measuring with time, a year doesn’t matter, and ten years are nothing. Being an artist means: not numbering and counting, but ripening like a tree, which doesn’t force its sap, and stands confidently in the storms of spring, not afraid that afterward summer may not come. It does come. But it comes only to those who are patient, who are there as if eternity lay before them, so unconcernedly silent and vast. I learn it every day of my life, learn it with pain I am grateful for: patience is everything!”
The need in India has been here for decades. It’s not going to go away in the near future. The sidewalk on the street where I live is in a perpetual state of change. It’s put together one month only to be torn up the next, a metaphor for my own incompleteness–of starting over, trying to make things work, change, to get things “right.” Whatever it is that causes that sidewalk to have to be torn up so often is a mystery. It’s just the way things are here. Likewise, whatever it is we are making or doing with our lives, it isn’t necessarily what we see on the surface. What’s really happening comes from a place far deeper, beyond the reach of our own understanding. I look into the face of my partner who I’ve known for decades now, and find him still a mystery, and stand in wonder. Who am I, I don’t even really know. Definitions, lists and examples aren’t enough to explain. Similarly, how can I in any way touch or meet the vast needs of a world as immense as India? I can’t. As Shakespeare wrote in Sonnet 65,
Since brass, nor stone, nor earth, nor boundless sea, But sad mortality o’er sways their power, How with this rage shall beauty hold a plea, Whose action is no stronger than a flower? O! how shall summer’s honey breath hold out, Against the wrackful siege of battering days, When rocks impregnable are not so stout, Nor gates of steel so strong but Time decays? O fearful meditation! where, alack, Shall Time’s best jewel from Time’s chest lie hid? Or what strong hand can hold his swift foot back? Or who his spoil of beauty can forbid? O! none, unless this miracle have might, That in black ink my love may still shine bright.
We are all frail and mortal. Beauty’s action may be no stronger than a flower, but still we need that flower. We all need to be touched, to be met, to be needed. So, I write on, my words, tiny splotches on computer screens of light wavering inside the colossal of India’s immensity, prayers of pale petals– ink floating down the Yamuna hoping to touch other lives.
“…experiences of beauty remain among the principal reasons for being alive, for wanting to remain alive, for sharing the joys of living with others…once we go beyond sheer survival…the quality of one’s life proves of the essence. And a life bereft of beauty–or, if you prefer, without the potential for beautiful experiences–is empty.”–Howard Gardner, Truth, Beauty, and Goodness Reframed
Traditionally, the criteria for great art was beauty. While across cultures people still find natural scenery like lakes and mountains beautiful, beauty has pretty much lost its place as an important criteria of Great Art, says Gardner. But beauty isn’t necessarily a criteria for art any longer, Gardener explains. What matters more now is whether art is memorable, whether it stimulates our interest–if it makes us see anew. This may be true, but I think for many, standing in a cathedral like Barcelona’s Sagrada Familia, still is capable for carrying people into a place of wonder and awe at how much beauty light hold can as it shines down through the glory hole above the altar because of the angle and shape of the skylight there as the golden walls reach up to the heavens.
Gardner’s criteria of making something that will niggle at people’s minds, stimulating their interest in memorable ways is possible if you are Antonio Gaudi. Gaudi’s Sagrada does both of these things in addition to being truly beautiful. I, on the other hand, am still working on practicing the most basic of basics in art. Last weekend I spent the afternoon painting on a pottery bowl–dragonflies, lily pads and grassy reeds. I’m new to drawing and painting, so it takes be longer than it would a person who is trained as an artist, but I don’t mind because the process itself engages me. For me, painting on pottery is a grand experience of experimentation. How will the design fit dynamically within the space without looking too crowded or too empty? How will I draw a design that’s not too complicated for my skill level? How will the line transform with the application of a particular glaze’s viscosity on the brush? How will the glazes’ s color change after firing that will influence what colors I choose before firing? I am a beginner, and these are questions I ask while working. Benchmarks of beauty for the the beginner in a particular field or craft are different from those who have been doing their work for years. Though it won’t pass for a high standard of beauty in the world at large, for a beginner the work one does can still be interesting and memorable–the hours spent creating completely absorbing.
My current drawing is a realistic one, but to paint it, I have to break the forms in the composition into their structural parts–deconstructing and then reconstructing objects in order to be able to paint them. I’m barely beginning to understand how to do that at the simplest level. Painters like Picasso, and Cezanne, deconstructed forms–painting from the inside of structures, so to speak, or the idea of what the structures suggested. Their work delves much further into complex understandings of what a forms are. I play with forms in order to understand how they function. Art masters, on the other hand, have gone through that stage long ago and have come out the other side. They understand forms so well that they have gained a flexibility that allows them to return to play with them anew–experimenting with them and knowing them in more intimately as a result. John Berger, in his book, Ways of Seeing, says, “The relation between what we see and what we know is never settled. Each evening we see the sun set. We know that the earth is turning away from it. Yet the knowledge, the explanation, never quite fits the sight.” Maybe this is why artists are constantly making, and making again, trying to show what they see inside an object, the feeling suggested in the form that makes it come alive.
Poetry is sound and line, shape–the use of white space to create meaning. As with visual art, in poetry also there is a kind of meta meaning going on between physical form and feeling. Beneath a poem’s words is the sound of words and the poem’s design on the page that is an integral part of the poem’s meaning. The artist places a line on the page and it, too, takes shape and meaning. Jeanette Mullaney, who writes and edits e-mails for the Metropolitan Museum of Art, talks about visual art’s marriage to poetry. These two art forms can take you away from where you are or bring everything together, she says. In my view, they might also sometimes paradoxically function to do both at the same time.
The connection of sound to emotion is interesting, even if there are no words or the words are indistinct. If you listen to just the sounds in this short animated Pixar film, La Luna, or this Polish, British, Norwegian animated film, Peter and the Wolf, (see more about the film here)much can be understood without specific words. Just the music and general sounds give an idea of what is happening. Connecting art and poetry, allowing them to resonate off of each other. Last year, poet Kenneth Goldsmith performed poems at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City while standing in front of various art pieces. According to the MOMA site, nearly everyone at the readings felt they had an impact on their visit, some saying that the associative connection between the art and the words deepened their experience of each.
Beauty is all around us in the very structure of nature–the Fibonacci curves of roses, pinecones, and the nautilus shell, for example, a structure that is beautifully balanced. It takes time to learn how to see. I want to create something beautiful but doing that is no small task. Nature took millions of years to develop, so of course I should understand that it’s going to take me a while too. But the time element doesn’t matter, really. Just working with color and shape hour after hour is somehow very satisfying. Art and poetry connect in the journey toward finding a life of meaning. Creating art, whether the form is poetry, film, painting or dance, is a way to enter in to and connect with a state of being that engenders attentiveness to life. It’s calming, refreshing, and an antidote not just to the pace of modern life but to its process as well. As Gardner stated, without beauty, life feels empty.